Bells and Baahs: Transhumance in Schnalstal
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
South Tyrol, Italy
In the middle of June, farmers in Schnalstal, Italy, drive their herds across the border to Venter Tal in Austria to graze the summer months away on the Alpine pasture. During the 44km, two-day trek, the shepherds and sheep are pushed to their limits as they cross snowfields and icy slopes. Then, in mid-September, the sheep are brought back down to spend the winter months in more temperate conditions. Known as transhumance, this border and glacier-crossing sheep drive in Schnalstal dates back 6,000 years.
Shepherds in traditional blue aprons, with long wooden walking sticks, together with their herding dogs, guide and corral the sheep on their way back to the valley. The return of the sheep in September has become a tradition of celebration, and not just for the farmers. The transhumance event brings flocks of people and sheep together, and, as of 2019, it is on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Moreover, it’s firmly on my list of things not to miss in South Tyrol.
On Saturday, we hiked from Kurzras to the Schöne Aussicht mountain hut, where we planned to spend the night in anticipation of the sheep spectacle the following day. We marched upward along a spongy forest path until we were above the tree line, surrounded by lichen-clad rocks. We could hear marmots whistling and see ibexes grazing. The scenery felt like it was make-believe, so it was only fitting that the weather had us playing dress-up. From rain to hail to blue skies – our jackets went on and off more times than we could count.
There, at 2,485 metres above sea level, the air is pure, the terrain is rugged, and life is good.
If that 125-year-old mountain hut, with its creaking floors, could talk, it would tell stories of the countless mountaineers, skiers, and shepherds who have passed through its doors to warm up, fill up, and rest up before continuing their adventures. From the moment you walk in, you feel at home.
After celebrating our arrival with a glass of prosecco, we spent the afternoon playing Watten, a typical South Tyrolean card game. It was my first time, and although it seems complicated, when you’re playing with an open hand and notes and help from everyone at the table, it’s a piece of cake.
At 7 p.m., the dinner bell rang, and our taste buds were given the VIP treatment. Red wine risotto, Frittatensuppe (clear broth with savoury crepe strips), beef, spinach and potatoes, and chocolate mousse. To finish, we had a round of Gentian schnapps – as is only fitting at a mountain hut.
The rest of the evening, we sat around the table chatting and having a good time until one yawn after another brought us to bed.
One sheep… Two sheep… and we were asleep.
Come morning, everything was dusted in snow. The wind was howling, and the air was damp. We had a slow start. A cup of coffee and some yoghurt was all I needed – though the buffet offered eggs, bread, jam, juice, and more.
After getting some fresh air outside, I plopped myself down in the Stube room (the heart of any home in South Tyrol) and flipped through the books on the shelves.
At around 11:30 a.m., the bells and "baahs" meant that the sheep had made it to the Schöne Aussicht! We gathered to watch as the shepherds kept their flock together. This was where they would have their lunch break. The hut was full of people. Traditional dishes were served, from Knödel bread dumplings to Kaiserschmarrn torn pancakes, along with beer and tea by the gallon. It was cosy inside, a welcome contrast to the cold wind outside.
After lunch, we walked back along the trail we hiked the day before and appreciated the terrain from a different angle. Once we made it into the valley, it started to drizzle, so we decided to head home – foregoing the festival with live music and food in Kurzras, where people from near and far were enjoying life and waiting for the three-o’clock arrival of the sheep.
On the drive home, the temperature rose from 15C to 27C, so I changed into my shorts, and we stopped for ice cream in Naturns.
It was one of those days where you ask yourself: “Am I dreaming?”
It’s remarkable how much you can experience in 24 hours.